Did we mention we travelled through Southeast Asia on our way to Australia? Only about fifty times, you say. Well then, let us repeat ourselves one more time. On our way to this great country (Australia, that is) we were lucky enough to sample an array of gourmet delights dished up at street-side shacks, hawker stalls and domestic kitchens across Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Does this make us experts on food from this fascinating part of the world? No. But does it mean we break into a mild sweat at the anticipation of finding similar culinary treats on our new doorstep? Yes, it does.
So, to cut to the chase, when we heard Middle Fish owner Pla hailed direct from southern Thailand, and not only that had her mum cooking up a storm in the kitchen, we could hardly contain ourselves. Two months and a trip to the UK later, we finally managed to get to the (pretty recently opened) Carlton establishment in a bid to recreate the good old days.
Housed in a cavernous warehouse space, the use of reclaimed wood, wrought-iron trellis partitions and dark red leather booths make this shabby-chic place look really inviting, as do the deckchairs that line the entrance, light streaming in from the high windows and warm smile on the face of the wait staff (Pla’s mum might have returned to the motherland, but the small, bustling kitchen is now in the capable of hands of a head chef and a number of service industry apprenticeships from Thailand).
Metal roller doors mark the entrance (next to Seven Seeds, although the bean of choice served here is 5 Senses – run through a Synesso coffee machine) and an industrial-looking concrete floor oozes an earthy simplicity. As does the metal frieze of fish jumping through waves, which runs almost the length of one of the exposed brick walls.
Bottles of industrial-strength Red Bull are for sale at the counter, and empty bottles of the potent brew double up as sugar containers on the tables. Also of note are the Cookie-style floral print crockery and array of drinking vessels – from silver beakers for the Singha drinking water to the cereal bowl-size copper cups that are filled to the brim with freshly squeezed fruit juices.
We were hungry, and Pla helpfully recommended the following, so we heeded instructions and ordered:
Chicken satay with house-made sauce and pickled vegetables – Tender, tender, tender. We all love meat on a stick, and this dish comes with an authentic, uber home-made satay, smooth and tangy peanut-y goodness.
Southern Thai fried chicken wings with fried shallots and homemade sauce – Massive for an entrée serve, and as a chicken wing aficionado – this hits the mark.
Gapi Fried Rice – Caramalised pork belly, green apple, bean shoots, carrot, red onions and a little bird’s-eye chilli.
What we thought might be the Thai equivalent of special fried rice turned out to be a main meal in itself – sticky-sweet pork and stacks of veggie-studded rice. Had a nice warming kick through it, too.
Tom Kah – Chicken breast coconut soup with galangal, tamarind, kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass and coriander. Comfort food, rich and almost a little too creamy and sickly, but if it is tempered with other dishes, you should be fine. Generous portion of chicken here.
Thai north-east beef salad, mince beef with Jasmine rice, roasted with Thai herbs and spices, red onions, spring onions, coriander, mint, chilli, lemon and lime. We ordered this thinking it sounded like the ‘laap’ we fell in love with in Laos – a mince meat, herby salad – and while it had definite resemblances due to the coriander and mint, the meat was a little to coarse and the dish lacked the cracked rice found in its across-the-border cousin (and therefore its ability to bind the ingredients together). But we can’t complain, the dish was what it said it would be, and a refreshing medium-sized main at that.
We were too stuffed for the desserts, and couldn’t even manage an chai, but will return to try the breakfast menu, and dinner menu when this welcoming southern Thai retreat nestled in North Melbourne gets its license.
122-128 Berkeley St
Carlton, VIC 3053
Ph. (03) 9348 1704